27 April 2005

Pulgasari - Eat, Stomp, and Send Mixed Allegorical Messages

Pulgasari. What can one say about such a movie, particularly given its unique origins. Director Shin Sang Ok presents a movie that, while made in the mid 1980s, has all the charm and poor quality of one made decades earlier.

The movie begins with what appears a subtle allegorical attack against the North Korean regime itself, or at least against the Songun “Army First” philosophy of Kim Jong Il himself. The peasants are oppressed by the King, who literally wants them to beat their cooking bowls and plowshares into swords for the King’s army. And this is portrayed as bad – I guess because the monarch doesn’t really care for his people?

The premise of the movie (a rip-off from an older Japanese film, or so I have heard), is that Pulgasari is brought to life by the Gods (I thought good North Koreans weren’t supposed to be taken in by such religions? Later, it is the evil forces who employ a Mudang to lure Pulgasari into a trap – their singing puts him into a trance, proving that religion is the opiate of the masses…), and aids the villagers in their fight against the King and his generals. The only catch is, to build his metal body and grow large, Pulgasari must eat metal – the very commodity that lead to the uprising in the first place. To save them, as its creator the dieing blacksmith says, the monster must destroy their village. There is some allegory in their too.

Throughout, you get the feeling that Pulgasari represents the great North Korean army – living off the peasants, working with them, and surviving because the spirit of the peasants burns. Oh, and Pulgasari burns too, only to exact his revenge by boiling his enemies as he rolls red-hot in the river.

There are references to the peasant armies of the past fleeing to their mountain strongholds, there are animals killed in the making of the film, there is the eating of bark and roots (awfully prescient about the North Koreans who, a decade later, were reportedly doing the same thing amid food shortages), and there are clever ambushes by the peasant armies.

The movie also has all the fun of an Asian monster flick – weird sound effects for the swords, a monster who can spit flaming cannon balls back at his opponents, flying missiles bouncing off his thick hide (or sticking in his eye…), and smashing buildings that look an awful lot like the Forbidden Palace in Beijing (perhaps another hidden allegory?). Oh, and there is the scene of Pulgasari squishing the King like the jelly donut he is.

After the war, Pulgasari still needs to eat, and the peasants continue to feed him their plows, risking their own lives. Eventually the main girl commits suicide by ingestion – she tricks Pulgasari into heating her, and when her spirit is extinguished, he explodes, becoming a spark in her heart again (though she looks really dead).

So there is an allegory that the Military is useful at times of crisis, springs up from the heart of the people, is invincible against the “most powerful weapons ever,” can squish the enemy, and must disband itself after the victory to allow the people to focus on agriculture and life, rather than feeding the insatiable appetite of the military machine. Ummmm… isn’t this the exact opposite message Pyongyang is trying to send to its people? Aren’t they still selling the Army First policy, the idea that without military strength there will be nothing else? Does this mean they will dump the army as soon as peace is achieved?

A few reviews are available at Stomp Tokyo, another at Stomp Tokyo, the SFCrowsnest, and the B-Movie Film Vault.

Or take a look at Kim Jong Il’s The Cinema and Directing.

And remember – bad guys always have oversized mustaches, its always better to take the tourist signs down when filming on location for a period piece, never try to kill an iron monster with fire, and never, ever try to hide in a bright yellow banner when an oversized iron monster is on the rampage.

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